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Robot Maker Flexes Its Muscle on Mars

The Martian rovers' arms are helping a Pasadena aerospace firm extend its reach.

April 05, 2006|Tanya Caldwell | Times Staff Writer

Rene Fradet has dreams for his small company that are out of this world.

His plan: Make money on Mars, and then bring that technology back to Earth. For nearly nine years, Alliance Spacesystems Inc. has been creating robots to explore the red planet for NASA, while dabbling in devices for everyday earthlings.

"We're focused on the aerospace market," said Fradet, one of three engineers who left the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to start Alliance Spacesystems. "But we're looking to apply that to the commercial market."

For now, the Pasadena company's primary mission is making machines intended to function on other planets. There's a robot that hops, a contraption that digs for interesting gases and a tiny camera on wheels, among other things.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 06, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Alliance Spacesystems: An article in Wednesday's Business section about Alliance Spacesystems Inc. said the Phoenix spacecraft would crash on Mars. The NASA craft, for which the company is building a robotic arm, is designed to perform a soft landing.

The aerospace company's biggest success has been the robotic arms it engineered for NASA's Mars rovers. The contract for the arms, which allow the two rovers to probe the Martian soil, propelled the fledgling company's initial growth in late 1997.

Back then, Alliance Spacesystems had only three employees -- Fradet and co-founders Scott VanderZyl and Jim Staats. Using a machine shop hauled over from VanderZyl's garage, the three were making parts for satellite testing equipment when they landed the rover contract.

The company had 18 months to complete 30 months of work, and quickly added 17 employees to get the job done, Fradet said. Most of the company's business came from JPL at first but, armed with funding from private investors, Alliance Spacesystems has attracted other aerospace customers since then, he said.

"We may have had a hiccup here and there, but for the most part, we've pulled through," Fradet said.

Now, with about 600 projects under its belt, Alliance Spacesystems is more than doubling its size by acquiring Vision Composites Inc., a Signal Hill-based company that specializes in manufacturing aerospace equipment out of lightweight, high-tech composite materials.

ASI and Vision previously have collaborated on projects, including the Mars rovers.

Combined, the two companies would have 65 employees and about $12.5 million in annual sales. The transaction, announced March 29, is expected to close in July. Terms weren't disclosed.

"It's such a nice fit," Fradet said. "Vision's composite manufacturing capability combined with ASI's engineering capability will allow us to compete for opportunities that were not available to either of us in the past."

Alliance Spacesystems' latest venture is a $5-million robotic arm for another Mars rover called the Phoenix, which was commissioned by JPL, located a few miles away in La Canada Flintridge.

Last week, the 7-foot arm was lying on a lab table in a sterilized "clean room" aglow with fluorescent lights and waxed tile floors. Passers-by could observe the company's newest addition from an oversize interior window, much as if looking in on a newborn at a hospital.

Fradet, standing outside the clean room, pointed to a nearby photo of the Mars rover Opportunity, declaring: "That's the robotic arm that's in Mars right now." The other rover, called Spirit, sports a similar arm.

Phoenix's robotic arm was just about complete, but it wasn't much of a looker. Long, metallic pipes extended from one branch of the arm to the next, connected by gears and shafts that served as technology's rendition of the human shoulder, elbow and wrist joints.

The only thing that was missing was the "scooper," a non-technical term used freely among the engineers. The scooper is considered a crucial tool for the Mars mission, set for 2007.

Once the Phoenix crashes onto the planet, Alliance Spacesystems' robotic arm will go to work, frantically digging for ice as deep as half a meter below the surface. It is looking for signs of water, an essential element of life. "When we design, it's strictly for engineering purposes," Fradet said. "We think it's creative, but it's not very artistic."

That'll have to change if Fradet's future ideas for human services ever get launched. He said that making it big in Earth's consumer market would bring a whole new world of challenges.

So far, company engineers have designed several non-space items. They made part of a rocket for display at Disneyland, a keyboard stand for R&B group Boyz II Men and a camera boom case guard for the producers of "Herbie: Fully Loaded," to keep the cameras on the car steady as the hyperactive Volkswagen Beetle bobbled around the big screen.

"We seem to attract these people who have ideas and can't find solutions for them," Fradet said.

Fradet's final frontier is to "take technology from outer space and apply it to commercial entities," he said. "But we have to be careful because the grass always seems greener next door."

One of the things he's considering is a lightweight, foldable scooter -- with a robotic arm.

"Maybe it could help feed an elderly person or reach something they can't reach," Fradet said. "It's kind of a desire to see if you can help make people's life easier.

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